New Mexico Post-Mortem: Reformers Differ on What Went Right, What Went Wrong 2/22/02

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Libertarian Republican Gov. Gary Johnson's effort to enact comprehensive drug reforms in New Mexico ended on Valentine's Day with the closing of the state legislature's 30-day special session. Having passed bills enacting five of Johnson's reforms, Johnson and the New Mexico Drug Policy Project (http://www.improvenewmexico.org), which worked closely with the governor's office and key legislators, are proud of what they have accomplished. But in a variation on a familiar theme in the drug reform movement, some activists are questioning both the strategies and the results.

What passed:

  • Asset forfeiture reform
  • Habitual offender sentencing reform
  • Waiver of ban of federal benefits for former drug offenders
  • Reentry drug court program
  • Legal syringe sales in pharmacies
  • Protection from civil and criminal liability for persons administering anti-overdose medications
What did not pass:
  • Medical marijuana
  • Marijuana decrim
  • "Treatment not jail" sentencing reform
"The glass is more than half full," NMDDP director Katherine Huffman told DRCNet. NMDDP is an affiliate of the former Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, newly renamed Drug Policy Alliance. "We got three out of six bills this session, and five out of eight overall. In this 30-day short session, that we managed to get three substantive bills passed is remarkable."

A battered-sounding Dave Miller agreed. Miller, Johnson's legislative liaison, was down in the trenches in Santa Fe during the session. "To get half our package pushed through in a very contentious atmosphere in our lame duck year, in the twisted, poisoned politics we have here in New Mexico, and faced with a very efficient opposition lobby, and to do so in 30-days, yeah, I think we did pretty well," he told DRCNet. "You try getting any bill through in 30 days." But the pot people are not so happy, either locally or nationally. And they have some reason. After all, marijuana was not decriminalized and medical marijuana is still outlawed.

"Does Lindesmith really care about legalizing marijuana?" asked Bruce Bush, secretary of New Mexico NORML (http://www.nmnorml.org) and head of the Delta-9 Coalition, a grassroots cannabis activist organization. "They should have started off demanding the repeal of marijuana prohibition and negotiated from there," he told DRCNet, "but Johnson didn't do that because he was guided by the Lindesmithies, or maybe he thought he was being pragmatic."

Pragmatic is precisely what Huffman calls it. "If we had proposed something like legalization it would have undermined whatever credibility we had as spokespeople for reform in the legislative setting and in the court of public opinion," she said. "It would have been a catastrophe."

National NORML (http://www.norml.org) head Keith Stroup doesn't necessarily agree with Huffman's analysis nor does he especially like the results. "I am disappointed," he told DRCNet. "I agree with those activists who say it would have been better to make an all-out push for legalization, and then maybe have to settle for decrim. Syringe sales are a good thing, but there are a few hundred thousand junkies in this country and 20 million pot smokers," said Stroup. "They should have focused on marijuana, but the opposite was their priority."

Not so fast, said Johnson's man in the trenches, David Miller. "We knew early on that decrim was dead," he said. "The House Democrats killed it behind closed doors. It was politics as blood sport," Miller said. "The governor had filed a bill requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions and we were told by credible sources that because the Democrats hated having to vote on that bill in an election year, they clipped our decrim bill and the treatment not jail bill," he said. "It's something the governor wanted, and they decided to take it away. It's political revenge."

And even if the decrim bill had had a fair chance, said Miller, marijuana remains a lightning-rod issue. "There is to this day a deeply engrained cultural bugaboo about marijuana. It is a real generational litmus test, and there is still very deep resistance among politicians, if not among the people," he argued. "I have learned not to be surprised by the depth of the cultural and political resistance to marijuana legalization, as opposed to asset forfeiture reform or even treatment not jail," he said.

"It's so easy to lobby against marijuana," Miller continued. "Three weeks ago, during the medical marijuana hearings, the opposition was showing centerfolds from High Times. That hurts when you're trying to get medical marijuana passed.

"Medical marijuana was a big disappointment," said Huffman. "We originally suggested a grow-your-own-system, but that was soundly rejected by the legislators. Instead, they wrote language that would set up a state-supervised distribution system. That hadn't been done before, and it scared some legislators, and it was an opening for criticism from the DEA, which scared them even more," she said. "But I don't actually think that was the reason it died -- that has more to do with statehouse politics."

The point is well taken. The success or failure of Johnson's drug reform package was only partly about drug policy. It also had to do with the bitter relations between a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature and the bad blood engendered by unrelated battles over abortion, budgets, and reapportionment. Still, the discontent remains.

"We had a rare opportunity with a conservative sitting governor whose number one priority was to decriminalize marijuana and legalize medical use, and we didn't get it done," said Stroup. "I'm a little bit critical of the Lindesmith approach," he said. "I give them credit for their accomplishments with statewide initiatives, but they haven't gotten it done in the legislatures. It is clear to me that Huffman and the governor were not pushing the medical marijuana bill out front. It should have been the one they were not going to trade off on," he said.

"Last year, we were deeply involved in the effort," Stroup continued. "This year, Lindesmith suggested we stay out, so we did. But what was the result? There wasn't anyone in New Mexico fighting for marijuana with the same priority as if we had been involved."

New Mexico NORML activist Bruce Bush sat it out for similar reasons. "I stayed away from the legislature this year because last year I was quoted as defending legalization and some senators said the presence of legalizers made them less likely to vote for this," he said. "Lindesmith talked to us last year, but around October it was all 'this is what our focus groups said and this is what we're going to do.' So I stayed away not to sabotage Lindesmith's effort," said Bush. "But they're too wimpy, things are moving too slowly. The drug warriors are extremists; we have to be extremists, too. Lindesmith doesn't want to end the drug war; they'll settle for a kinder, gentler one."

Huffman took exception to that characterization. "We do not want a kindler, gentler drug war," she said, "but a real change in our policies that will end the drug war." While Johnson will soon be history, NMDPP plans to stick around, said Huffman. "This year was a legislative effort, but it was also an educational effort. We will continue to have a presence in the state, and we will be reminding elected officials that these things have two-thirds popular support in the state."

Bush and other local activists will be around, too. "Going around with our tails between our legs isn't going to get us anything," he said. "We are meeting to see how radical our future actions ought to be. We stayed silent because we didn't want to be accused of undermining the Lindesmithies. That didn't work," he said.

"It's not a simple problem," said Huffman. "It's important that groups interested in these issues work together as much as possible. I don't think the fact that we have differences minimizes our work or the work of others. All these voices are critical to moving things forward. We just have to ensure that while we make progress we do not undermine our long term goals. We have to be constantly mindful of that."

-- END --
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Issue #225, 2/22/02 Editorial: Costs and Consequences | Lies, Damn Lies, and "The Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States, 1992-1998" | New Mexico Post-Mortem: Reformers Differ on What Went Right, What Went Wrong | Britain: Parliamentary Committee Will Recommend Cannabis Decrim, Ecstasy Down-Scheduling, More Heroin Prescriptions | Dutch to Consider Prescription Heroin for Hard Cases, Study Results Lay Groundwork for Move | New Study Provides First Comprehensive Report on Drug Laws in All 50 States and DC, Variations Abound | At the Statehouse: Medical Marijuana Moving in Maryland and Vermont | Libertarian Party Ad Campaign Takes on Drug Terror Link | Federal Drug Office Accused of "Enron-Style Accounting" in New National Drug Budget Reporting | News Links: Bolivia and Colombia, California Medical Marijuana, Drug-Terror Ad Parody | Alerts: HEA, Bolivia, DEA Hemp Ban, SuperBowl Ad, Ecstasy Legislation, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, Virginia | The Reformer's Calendar

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